A federal judge in Colorado has upheld the decisions of two federal agencies approving a natural gas project in the White River National Forest in the northwestern part of the state.

In a petition filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado, environmental groups — the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Wilderness Workshop — challenged the final decisions of the U.S. Forest Service and Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) approving OXY USA Inc.’s Hells Gulch North Phase 2 natural gas development project in Mesa County, CO, in the forest.

The project, which would allow for production over a 20-30 year period, calls for Houston-based OXY to drill up to 45 natural gas wells, construct six well pads, and create six miles of new access roads. It also clears the way for 50 acres of new surface disturbance in the forest. If OXY successfully produces natural gas, it will be permitted to build approximately six miles of pipeline and install up to 45 400-bbl storage tanks, according to court documents.

The two groups claimed that the Department of Agriculture Forest Service’s issuance of “finding of no significant impact” and the BLM approval of drilling permits failed to analyze the project’s effects on the creation of ozone pollution. Specifically, they alleged that the project, which was first proposed in 2006, violated the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), National Forest Management Act (NFMA), and the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA).

The Natural Resources Defense Council and Wilderness Workshop argued that the Forest Service should have taken a harder look at the ozone potential of the drilling project. But the Forest Service said it opted against modeling ozone because it would be “extremely complex and resource-intensive due to ozone’s regional nature.”

The court deferred to the federal agencies. “Defendants’ conclusion that ozone modeling was inappropriate for this project based on its complexity and cost is entitled to deference,” the court ruling said (Civil Action No. 08-cv-02371-CMA).

“Although ozone modeling may have been possible, it is not the role of this court to direct the Forest Service to engage in any particular scientific investigation or to utilize any particular technology in its NEPA analysis…The court, therefore, cannot conclude that the Forest Service acted arbitrarily and capriciously in violation of NEPA by failing to conduct a regional ozone modeling analysis for the project,” it noted.

And “because the court has already concluded that the Forest Service’s decision was not arbitrary and capricious under NEPA and NFMA, the court similarly concludes that the BLM’s decision was not arbitrary and capricious under NEPA and FLPMA,” the court said.

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